Mario is one of those annoying people who seems to be good at whatever he turns his hand to: not satisfied with merely being a tennis champion, golf champion, kart racing champion and constant saviour of the Mushroom Kingdom, Mario is trying out four new sports in Mario Sports Mix for Wii and we're betting he's going to be good at those too.
Development duties have landed firmly in the laps of the RPG-machines at Square Enix and they've offered up an interesting platter of sports: dodgeball, basketball, hockey and volleyball are all in the mix, and what's on offer more than suffices.
At the top of the game you're faced with a few options: you can either choose one of the four disciplines for an exhibition game or the tournament mode; you can hop online and compete against friends and strangers alike; or you can try the paltry party mode minigames for a little bit of jocular sporting action.
Before an exhibition match or dipping into tournament mode you decide whether you want a two-on-two or three-on-three event. Lone players may want the extra backup two CPU characters provide, while a pair of humans may want to go it alone without the computer stealing their glory. Twelve denizens of the Mushroom Kingdom have donned their sports gear all hoping not to be picked last, including the lanky spinoff shyster Waluigi. Characters are classed as either speedy, powerful, technical or all-rounders, which dictates their stats and abilities.
Anyone who's ever played a Mario sports title before will be familiar with the set-up; however, the activities here don't quite match up to Mario's tennis and golf outings in terms of depth.
Basketball is the obvious champion, as Square Enix's previous work on Mario Hoops 3-on-3 gave it a strong foundation to build on. The aim is to score as many buckets over the course of two three-minute periods through a combination of dunks, alley-oops, lay-ups and monster three pointers. It's fast, frenetic fun and combining with your teammates for awesome dunk combos is incredibly satisfying.
Hockey is played on both ice and tarmac, but it provides little more than a change in shoes, as the physics remain the same. Charge shots and body checks make hockey a far more physical game than the others, and in a rare move towards realism Square Enix even threw in some fighting. With all the violence being completely legal it takes some deft manoeuvring to make enough space to ready a charge shot.
The aim of the dodgeball game is to dodge, duck, dip, dive and… dodge incoming balls from your opponents and hit them with return fire to deplete their life bar, knocking them out of the game. The first team to eliminate the other team wins the set; take two sets and you win the match.
With only one ball in the mix things can get quite slow, and sometimes in three-on-three games you'll get in a muddle with the character control – unlike most sports titles you won't automatically switch to the player with the ball. Switching requires a button press and the game does a half-hearted job of assigning you to the appropriate player, a fact that'll annoy control freaks, especially when the computer's taking aim at your players.
Volleyball is a bit of lame duck – even though everything works, it just feels limp. Matches are broken into sets, first to 15 takes the set and winning two sets wins the game. There's not a whole lot of depth or shot variety on offer and games quickly fall into a pattern of the same spike to the same spot – it feels a bit like an overly long Mario Party minigame and you'll find yourself tiring around the seven-point mark.
Control for all four sports is universally simple; with the Remote and Nunchuk pressing A will pass, tackle and set-up combos, while you can shoot, dunk, throw and spike with flicks of the Remote. The fact that the motion controls have been kept simple will keep you from developing a bad case of Wii Sports tennis elbow.
If you think it's all sounding a bit simple so far fear not, the trademark Mario twist has been added to all the games. The normal arsenal of shells, stars and bob-ombs are at your disposal to lob in the enemy's direction or to modify your shots and throws, making them damage anyone foolish enough to get in their way. Running over '?' blocks will either give you an item or a coin; any collected coins are added to your total when you successfully score, so prudent collectors can get back into the game even after a scoring dry spell. Taking a direct hit from any stray shells or the like causes you to spill your gold and gives rivals a chance to hoover it up and cash it in themselves. There are even power shots like Mario's fireball that almost guarantee scoring, providing your aim is true.
The pitches have received the Mario treatment too, and are littered with traps, treadmills and even travelling trains. The same pitches are used for multiple sports, but repurposed to be more befitting. Take DK Dock for instance: in a basketball match the flooring will shift, leaving a gap below the basket that forces you to shoot for three pointers or risk missing a dunk and hitting the drink below. In dodgeball the moving floor is used to hem your team into a smaller area making you sitting ducks for short periods. There are some missteps, like levels with built-in score multipliers that allow for the cheapest comebacks known to man, but on the whole the design is imaginative, engaging and visually pleasing, with some excellent background music to boot.
Tournaments for each sport are split into three cups: Mushroom, Flower and Star, and you can tackle them alone or with a friend. In a nice touch the tournament roster is laid out like a world map from Mario's platforming romps. With only three matches per cup and a low level of difficulty winning each trophy is a bit of a breeze, so you may want to crank up the difficulty from the off to avoid the tedium of constant walkovers. Once you've pocketed the trophy you're encouraged to go back and play through again to uncover alternate routes through the tournament. These new paths offer up challenge based matches, plus the chance to unlock new stages and some famous faces from Square Enix's roster, although unfortunately you have to unlock everything for each sport separately, which slightly spoils the magic the third or fourth time.
Beating all four tournaments lets you go on to face an utterly needless but nonetheless awesome boss encounter that we won't spoil for you, suffice to say it'll have you grinning like a buffoon.
While the tournament is all well and good you'll get the biggest kicks and the most challenge by competing with your friends. Sports Mix really shines when it's whipped up a healthy level of competition in four people who should really know better. Matches can easily turn into tit for tat and the scores can get preposterous at times, but crack this game out at gatherings and it'll bring out the fun loving hooligan in anyone.
While Mario Sports Mix may lack the depth of Mario Tennis and Golf, it's a great example of a more casual Mario title that multiple players can enjoy. Not all the disciplines on offer will be to everyone's taste, but there's enough good stuff here to last you a fair while and Square Enix have given it oodles of imagination.
Be sure to check out our Mario Sports Mix competition where you could grab a copy of this sporting extravaganza!